Director discussed being “sodomised ritualistically” on Alien3, his reputation for multiple takes, the opportunities of TV and his latest film, Gone Girl.

David Fincher at BAFTA

US director David Fincher opened up about his career to date at BAFTA in London last night, entertaining the sold-out ‘A Life In Pictures’ event with anecdotes surrounding the highs and lows of his filmmaking.

The visionary director behind Se7en, Fight Club and The Social Network is on the promotion trail with his latest feature, Gone Girl, a psychological thriller based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel that stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike.

Flynn also wrote the screenplay based on her own novel, about a man who becomes a suspect in his wife’s disappearance after being the focus of an intense media circus.

“It begins as a mystery, it becomes an absurdist thriller and is ultimately a satire,” said Fincher. “I’d never seen someone try to juggle those things and actually do it. It’s a high wire act.”

Speaking about his leading man, Fincher said: “[Affleck] had a very distinct relationship understanding of what it is to be in the woodchipper of public opinion and not have any say or control of it.

“I try to find something in the role that they have so at the end of a 15-hour day it will still be there.”

Gone Girl will receive its world premiere as the opener of the New York Film Festival on Sept 26 and is anticipated to feature in the upcoming award season.

TV v Film

It marks the first film Fincher has made since directing the first two episodes of Netflix series House of Cards last year.

Asked about film vs television, the director said: “One’s not better than the other. It’s like writing an opera or a pop song. They’re different muscles.”

However, he did acknowledge that TV has the edge over film these days when it comes to building characters.

“Television has become the place for characters to evolve,” said Fincher. “There is very little time in the movies anymore for characterisation.

“Scenes in movies have become ground acquisitions. It’s like giving people plot that they put in their backpack and accrue they own way through the narrative.

“Television is a place where characters can be slowly peeled to reveal.”

Multiple takes

Asked about his reputation for multiple takes, Fincher sighed, took a deep breath and said: “My philosophy is you spend $250,000 on a set. You put it on a sound stage that costs $5,000 a day; $8,000 on lights; $150,000 on crew; actors from all over the world. And the idea is to get them out as soon as possible? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

“I want to make sure we get it. I don’t want to have to say, “Well, we tried.” My process is to give 17, 18, 25 bites of the apple.”

The filmmaker, celebrated for generating suspense and horror in his films, is often compared to ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock. But Fincher rejected the comparison.

“The essential element to Hitchcock is dramatic irony. Suspense requires that the audience know more than the characters,” he said.

“Usually, the kinds of stories I’m attracted to reveal themselves to be something other than what you suspected them to be. I’m not the anti-Hitchcock but I don’t feel like it’s the same.

“Although, there’s a fulcrum scene in Gone Girl that we did talk about ‘How did they handle it on Vertigo’ but that conversation was probably 18 seconds long.”

Science of cinema

Fincher earlier reflected on his pre-filmmaking years, recalling how he was convinced aged eight that he wanted to make movies (“I never lacked for confidence”), living close to Star Wars creator George Lucas in Marin County and working as a projectionist when his parents moved to Oregon.

He also revealed how he “haunted the hallways” of Lucas effects company Industrial Light and Magic to learn the science of film.

“Being on sets and watching how shit went down, I watched a lot of directors get rope-a-doped,” he recalled.

“I could see that they wanted to execute something and the experts hired to support them said ‘We won’t have time for that’.

“So I watched people I admired get spun and I vowed never to let that happen. I want to know what every motherfucker in the room does. I never wanted to be the person victimised by other people’s laziness.”

Fincher on Alien3

“I love Alien and I respect and really liked Aliens. Jim [Cameron]’s movie is one of the 20 best movies ever made but Ridley [Scott]’s is one of the 10.

“It was a totally formative experience. I saw what he did with the world of that and was gobsmacked.

“So I signed up and went off to Pinewood to be sodomised ritualistically. There’s no one problem with a $65m, fucked-up, first-time film.

“I made a crucial error. I listened to the people who were paying for the movie who said: ‘The way you go about this is not to work with your friends. The way to go about this is to work with people who have done this time and time and time again.’

“That translates into meet a lot of people who are going to resent you and your age, and are not going to want to take instruction from you, and allow them to tell you what you can’t do.

I pretty much alienated everyone at the studio. There was an entire layer of management between me and people paying for the movie who were saying: ‘It’s going to be fine, he’s skittish.’ And I was the one saying: ‘This is a total fucking nightmare.’ And they stopped listening to me.

“I got fired off Alien twice. I was basically shut out of the mix. So I retreated back into making television commercials and had no expectation that I would ever be employable again.”

Fincher on Se7en

“I got sent a script and it was Se7en. I read about 30 pages and I thought ‘A fucking old cop and a young cop? Jesus.’

“I called my agent and said: ‘I can’t do this,’ and he said keep going. I went back and got to where John Doe walks into the police station and gives himself up. And I was holding the script, knew how many pages were left, and thought you can’t do this, it’s against the rules.

“I read to the end and thought this is insane. This movie that started out as a procedural… and then the movie changes. At that point it becomes a horror film.

“I thought it was so genius because a horror is ultimately about loss of control. The scene that was missing was exactly the thing you would expect: Brad Pitt driving on the sidewalk, Gwyneth Paltrow drawing a bath, Kevin Spacey climbing up the fire escape. The whole suspense thing.

“And [screenwriter] Andy Walker had said: ‘Fuck that, she’s been dead 15 hours.’ It was just so harrowing. I thought this is amazing.

“So I called my agent and said this head in a box ending is unbelievable. He said: ‘Oh my god, I sent you the wrong draft. That’s the first draft. There’s 11 drafts.’  I said: ‘No, this is the one.’

“I went out to meet cast and met this long, blonde-haired actor who had just got off this movie Legends of the Fall and told him I wanted to make The French Connection. We hit it off and I was driving in my car back to the office and got a call saying Brad [Pitt] wants to do it.

“I was asked if I wanted to talk to Morgan Freeman. I said: ‘We can’t send him the script, Morgan Freeman is a genius. If we send him the script, he’ll never want to talk to me.’ They said: ‘No we sent him the script and he wants to talk to you. And he said he’d love to do this’.

“We read a lot of people [for John Doe]. I wanted and Andy originally wanted Ned Beatty. It was oddly based on the wanted or the police drawing of Zodiac. This guy with a crew cut and horn rimmed glasses. That was the vision. He should look like a poster. So we sent it to Ned Beatty and he called me and said: ‘I can’t do this. This is the most evil thing I’ve ever read.

“[Kevin] Spacey came in and read and killed it. We said: ‘Spacey’s the guy we should get,’ New Line said his quotes were too high and continued to read people.

“Finally, we were shooting and Brad said: ‘What’s going on with Spacey, are we going to get Spacey?’

“I said: ‘We’re running around the block on his quotes’ and he said ‘fuck that’, got on the phone and said: ‘You gotta get Kevin Spacey,’ and they said: ‘Of course!’

“It pays to be blonde.

“On Alien3 I was asking for permission. On Se7en I was asking for forgiveness. I knew that if I didn’t tell this story the way I wanted I’d probably never work again so I just thought fuck it.”

Fincher on Fight Club

Fight Club was a movie where half the financing fell out before we started shooting. Bill Mechanic to his credit said: ‘I’m making this movie.’ Laura Ziskin, may she rest in peace, was there every step of the way saying: ‘Go, keep going, it’s great, we love the dailies, it’s amazing.’

“When we cut the movie together and showed them the final thing is the first time everyone realised they were going to get fired. It’s a great cocktail story about doing this movie that’s so dark and twisted and then they see it and go, oh my god, what’s the poster here? How do we get people to see this?

“The marketing department shit all over the movie and said: ‘Men don’t want to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off and women don’t want to see him bloody so you’re fucked.’

“So they devised a campaign for the film to sell it to people watching the World Wrestling Federation.I wanted to sell it as a satire. Madness.

“People go to the movies to see things they haven’t seen before. Call me a radical.”

Fincher on Panic Room

“I liked the limitations of it, the constraint, the space of it. I liked the idea of an omniscient camera. This is not just getting to do computer generated imagery. The idea was you are separated by three feet of steel between what is happening. Neither party can hear each other but the audience knows more than either party and we’re constantly in suspense wondering if they are going to turn a corner.

“Also, the camera can fly through keyholes. So there’s a good chance that as a viewer you’re going to see something you don’t want to see so there’s a tension to that that the camera can go anywhere, flying under doors. I thought that was kind of cool.”

Fincher on Zodiac

“It’s about the ripple effect of these horrible losses of life but these other kinds of losses of life. Robert Graysmith is someone who gave many good years he could have spent with his kids, holed up in his kitchen. It is about obsessiveness and compulsivity.

“But also about what is the expectation of justice. If you know, is it good enough. If he’s not led away in handcuffs will you be satisfied? I thought that was a profound idea – that you should inflict on an audience over three hours.

“Our story is about the unknowability of the truth.”

Fincher on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

“My father had just died and I’d never experienced that before. I’d never sat with someone as they drew their last breath. It was really profound. No one can prepare you for it. It’s a rite-of-passage that can’t be explained. This is somebody who in a lot of ways - even when you’re reacting against them - they’re shaping you and suddenly they’re gone and have evaporated.

“Benjamin is very much like my father, a wallflower, adrift in time. I loved the idea of a movie about death that is cloaked in a candy fable.

“I joked, but it’s true, that it has the highest body count of all my movies. Everybody dies. I thought it was kind of insane in a lovely way.”

Fincher on The Social Network

“When you read a script that good you just say: ‘Where do I go to surrender?’ It was just great. I knew those guys. I started Propaganda with those guys. I knew what it was to go this is not cute, this is my fucking dream.

“I was given the script. It was under very strange Alien auspices in that we had a script that the studio was making. ‘You tell us who you want to put in it… You let us know but we want to get started in September.’ And that’s what we did.

“Andrew Garfield wanted to play Mark Zuckerberg. He came to read under the auspices of playing Mark Zuckerberg. He was good and gave a good reading. He’s a talented dude.

“Then Jesse Eisenberg sent his audition tape and I grabbed Aaron, brought him over to computer, hit play and he said: ‘Oh my god, he does me better than me.’ So it had to be Jesse.

“I called Andrew over, we sat in my office and I said: ‘I can’t offer you Mark Zuckerberg but I’d love if you’d come to readthrough and read for Eduardo. You as an actor build an umbilicus to the audience. You create an emotional attatchment. That’s your gift. I need that for Eduardo. And if you come and read through I think you’ll see what I’m doing. No strings attached.’

“He came, he read, we finished, walked to parking lot and he said: ‘I get it. This guy is amazing.’”

Fincher on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

“The serial killer aspect of this movie was of no interest to me. I just really loved the idea of these two people. I loved the idea of a 23 year-old social misfit and freak and her relationship with this guy who thinks he knows everything.

“To me, the story was of a guy who has seen the case files, he knows the evil men do, he is conceptually aware and she comes into his life and says: ‘You have no idea what evil is.’

“The connection they have is what was interesting to me.”

Fincher on Gone Girl

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that to, and there comes a point where one who enter into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you.

“This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”